Over the past few decades, one of the key narratives to emerge from the UK media is one of national decline.
It is a narrative that is pursued with particular vigour in the education sector which, if one were to believe the headlines, is in a perpetual state of crisis.
While it would be naïve to say that our educational system is not without its faults – some of them very serious – it is equally wrong to ignore its successes.
One such success is in the teaching of design and technology, with the UK being home to some of the leading – if not the leading – schools in the world for the teaching of the subject.
It is an achievement that we should be proud of and look to build on, because success in design and technology education ultimately means economic success as students apply their learning to a wide range of industries – including engineering, computing and design – and become the business leaders, problem-solvers and entrepreneurs of the future.
While there are no international league tables through which we can accurately measure the relative positions of global design and technology pedagogies, clear evidence of the UK’s leadership in design and technology education exists. In fact, the UK has emerged as a best practice hub for design and technology education, with the best of its schools attracting delegations from around the world that travel here to learn from their work.
Over the last year, such visits have been quarterly and have included representatives from China, South Korea and Singapore. Here we have representatives from countries whose schools are synonymous with educational excellence (all three countries continually score highly in the PISA international league tables) coming to learn from UK schools and teachers.
Importantly these delegations are not just made up of educationalists – in the case of South Korea the delegation was sent by a major technology company keen to implement UK pedagogy into an educational academy it was launching.
Such delegations come to visit the best of the best – those beacons of best practice that are currently leading the way in design and technology education in the UK.
What these schools understand is that design and technology education is more than simply teaching a set of skills and a list of knowledge and techniques – it is about teaching students to be innovative and to use a wide range of resources and processes when designing and making solutions to real challenges.
This is what makes the best of UK design and technology education so special. It focuses on designing, problem-solving, team-work and good communication in addition to developing, for example, skills in CAD, nutritional analysis and practical hand and machine skills.
Crucially, as our partners in the business world have confirmed to us, it is the former set of skills that are most important to modern businesses. Technical skills can be relatively easily taught through on-the-job training, but the deeply ingrained soft-skills and problem-solving mind-set that good design and technology education imparts are much more valued and exactly the sort of skills that the best of our schools are imparting.
Rightly or wrongly, the UK has a reputation for being great at starting things, but poor at building on them and profiting from them – we were for example, pioneers in the computer age during the 1940s and 50s but have largely left it to other nations to develop it and reap its rewards. Now is our chance to make sure that the same does not happen to design and technology education.
Later this year the new national curriculum comes into force in England. This represents a perfect opportunity for schools and teachers across the country to look again at their design and technology schemes of work, drawing inspiration from the best that our country has to offer.
This renewal needs to be supported by professional development for teachers as well as by the support and resources teachers need to achieve educational excellence and improve student achievement. In fact, as we move towards the September launch of the new curriculum, our work at the Design and Technology Association will increasingly focus on how we can help teachers acclimatise to this new subject framework.
Indeed, as a subject that changes on a near daily basis this support is arguably more important for design and technology than for any other subject and needs to be met through significant, long-term training. The result will be teachers better prepared to plan and teach a modern design and technology curriculum that is relevant to all students and to the needs of business and industry.
Anecdotally, when it comes to the teaching of design and technology, some of the best schools in the UK are those that are also aware of the career opportunities that the subject can open for students.
The best schools work with local and national businesses to ensure that the design challenges they present to students in class reflect real-world business challenges.
Businesses don’t operate within subject disciplines. For them the integration of STEM knowledge and skills is automatic. They require the practical application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics along with other attributes, including employability factors. In design and technology lessons students have the opportunity to work in this way too – working in teams, taking risks, taking leadership roles, being creative are all attributes which they make use of when designing and creating products in class.
If we are to build on our position as world leaders in the teaching of design and technology, schools should look to partner with businesses.
After all, when schools have the benefit of an industry partner to set a real brief, participate in teaching and learning, gain insights into real careers and support the development of technical skills then the experience gained through design and technology is enhanced further.
The UK’s approach to the teaching of design and technology has produced pockets of brilliance that are the envy of the world. While we should be proud of these and enjoy their success, we should not be complacent.
The government has to recognise this and should be looking to work in partnership with the subject community and the subject association to ensure that the level of excellence set by these schools is met by all schools across the country.
This has to involve supporting schools with training and resources as the new curriculum is rolled out as well as helping them to work closely with business partners to ensure that teaching maps to industry needs.
This is something that the Design and Technology Association takes very seriously and we are working to address through our Skills Gap Programme. This programme unites schools with businesses to develop teaching resources and CPD materials that link design and technology in school to real-world applications to ensure students have the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in work.
The result of such programmes will not just be better trained teachers and better-educated students, it will also see a future workforce that can contribute more than ever to our national culture and economy.
Engineering the FutureThe report from Engineering the Future (EtF), found that the industry is suffering because of misconceptions by young people and a lack of science skills among applicants.An Insight into Modern Manufacturing, considered the views and experiences of a number of engineering businesses and companies.One respondent said that school-leavers did not come into the workplace with the right science skills, while another said common misconceptions about manufacturing included poor pay, high redundancy rates and that it is dirty, physically demanding work.Poor careers guidance was also a factor. One business manager said: “The lack of career advice and the national curriculum losing modules in design and technology at secondary level will have a negative impact on future manufacturing. By taking away the chance to see the link between real-world applications of STEM subjects at school there is a risk that students will not take STEM subjects to a higher level.”
Richard Green is chief executive of the Design and Technology Association. Visit www.data.org.uk